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  • Writer's pictureNate Johnson

How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?

Resting is important for your overall well-being, and it is also important in the gym. If you have ever wondered “how long is long enough?”, look no further! We’re going to break it down for you in simple terms so that you can know what to do the next time you’re in the gym.

First, all we need to do is ask the right questions. These will be the guiding principles of determining the length of a rest period. There are four questions on our checklist:

1) Are you out of breath?

This one is probably obvious, but it’s still important to consider. If you’re still really winded after your first working set, then you’re probably not ready for the next one. We want your muscles to be the limiting factor, not your lungs. You want to rest just long enough to where you’re not huffing and puffing and your performance stays high.

2) Are you ready to train hard again?

This question is less about your physical readiness and more about your mental readiness. When you are resting, not only are your muscles getting a break, but you’re giving your mind a chance to refocus on your next set. If you go into your second set all scatterbrained, that’s not great! It takes a bit of practice, but use that time in between sets to mentally prepare yourself.

3) Are you too fatigued?

If you’re feeling slightly lightheaded, your muscles are kind of burning, or the off chance that you have some kind of cramp, rest longer! Often times if you jump into the next set too quickly, these kinds of things can happen. There is no need to jump the gun when you’re training. Something we say a lot here at Steel is that you are trying to build your strength, not constantly test it. Take your time and put in quality work!

4) Could you perform at least 5 quality reps?

The nature of this question is more concrete, and for that reason it acts as a proxy for the other three. After you have assessed the first three questions, you need to ask yourself if you could perform at least five quality reps. Even if you think that you could rest more, this question can keep you in check and ensures that the rest period is doing it’s job. Resting for too long can take away from the workout and can make it harder to stay focused.

As we move forward in the subject, we need to keep these basic questions in mind. They will help us determine the length of our rest periods in terms of minutes and seconds.

Next, we’re going to go over some of the science behind resting between sets. We’re not gonna get into the weeds on this one, just a behind-the-scenes look.

As mentioned before, the purpose of a rest period is to prepare you for the next set. The graph above represents this concept. At the beginning of your first set, your performance level for the day is at its peak. After performing the set, that performance level will drop. It’s at this point you get out of breath, you’re not ready to train hard again, you’re too fatigued, and there’s no way you could get 5 quality reps right away! It’s all of the things that we talked about before.

In order to restore your performance level, you need to wait a certain amount of time. After this time has passed, your performance will be at the minimum level that it needs to be for your next set. This level is represented by the dotted line which is known as your minimum recovery threshold. Time passed is a tool we use to recover performance. Once you’re nice and ready, you can attack your next set!

Now that we have discussed the basic questions we ask ourselves in training, and the science behind it, let’s combine them together to apply these principles.

As we discussed in one of our most recent videos, the exact length of a rest period is determined by two factors: exercise selection and intensity.

As far as exercise selection goes, there are two ends of the spectrum. On the more extreme side, there are compound movements. This would include the squat, bench press, deadlift, and press. These movements are usually the most fatiguing, and for that reason require longer rest periods. On the other end of the spectrum, there are isolation movements. This category includes any movement that only involves one joint like a dumbbell curl or tricep extension. These are not as fatiguing as compound movements, so the rest periods don’t need to be as long.

The intensity of both of these movement types will factor into rest periods as well. For example, if a set is only at RPE 6, then resting isn’t necessary. But an RPE 9 is a totally different story!

Combining both of these variables allows us to figure out how long of a rest period is ideal. A compound movement at an RPE 7 or higher usually requires a 2-3 minute rest period. An isolation movement at the same RPE range will be around 45-90 seconds. These aren’t perfect ranges, but they tend to be the sweet spot for most people.

One quick note on warm-ups. You should make a point of it to not rest between warm-up sets! The weight is still light and you want to be efficient with your time so that you can bring all of your focus and energy to your working sets where it matters.

Just like everything else in a workout program, rest periods accomplish a purpose. It is important to consider them as a variable just like sets, reps, or weight on the bar. If you’re the kind of person who tends to rush into the next set, it’s OK to slow down! Your body will thank you for taking some time. If a two minute rest period turns into 10 minutes, then it would be a good idea to shorten that. It might be harder at first, but your ability to recover between sets will improve over time.

Good rest periods will allow you to get stronger, improve your physique, and stay on track with your goals because it will allow you to be consistent with your training. So make sure to rest up and get after it!

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